Archives for Tips
If all decisions were easy to make, we’d probably save time (for the things we love) and we’d likely have less clutter, too. In that ideal world of easy decision making, we’d know what to do with everything we own and we wouldn’t scratch our heads trying to figure out where to store our things. Gone would be the days of delaying decisions because of uncertainty. And, we’d probably have fewer opportunities to procrastinate.
…when faced with a decision, we should assess how long we have to make it, and then wait until the last possible moment to do so.
He goes on to say that if/when we do this, we’ll ultimately be happier. I’m not inclined to agree with those sentiments, but he makes an interesting distinction between active procrastination (doing important things you also need to get done) and passive procrastination (like watching TV, playing video games). Basically, he says that it’s not really procrastination if you choose to do something of higher value (like spending time with family, restocking the first aid kits, organizing/clearing pathways) than the project or task you should be currently addressing. While there may be some merit to that, if you’re on a tight deadline because you’ve significantly delayed getting started, you really do have to focus on the tasks at hand.
Though practicing the “art of delay” can help your productivity (like waiting to respond to emails at specific times during the day), when an important and urgent project comes calling, even active procrastination needs to be put on the back burner. But, if you find that you’re cringing at the thought of getting your important tasks done, why not use that delayed time to your benefit? Instead of choosing to focus on trivial things, use that time to think through how you’re feeling, to figure out why you may be feeling stuck. Perhaps you don’t have enough information to get started or are not sure how to begin? Is it possible that you’re putting on your perfectionist hat and waiting for the theoretical right moment? Maybe you really do want to focus on something else that’s of more interest to you.
No matter what the reasons are, if you can figure them out, you’ll be in a better position to start looking for ways to turn things around. You can use that time to come up with a plan.
Work for a short block of time
By simply working for a few minutes at a time, you can chip away at those important, deadline-driven tasks until they’re completed. You might also find that you’re likely to keep working once you get started. But, if your motivation to get things done seems to be underfoot for an extended period of time …
If you tend to put off working on a specific task, it could be because you don’t value it very much or you just don’t like doing it. This can be an opportunity to call in reinforcements and help can come in a variety of forms. Perhaps you just need to call a friend who can give you a much needed nudge. Or, maybe there’s a colleague who can handle a portion of the project (the part that has you stuck) so you can focus on the rest of it.
Using a pro vs con list can probably help, too. Thinking about all the aspects of waiting until the last minute can give you a different perspective. What are the super cool things about delaying the project? What are the evil consequences? Seeing the good vs evil reasons in black and white just might be the motivation you need to get going (and so can a change of environment).
Rethink your priorities
If you notice that you’re continually putting off things that you need to do on a recurring basis, you may want think about whether or not the projects you accept (or are assigned) are the right fit for your skills and interests. It’s not realistic to think that you can only work on things that you like or are passionate about, but if you find that you’re consistently having negative feelings about particular activities and, as a result, delay working on them, it’s time to identify tasks that interest you even nominally. Where possible, make some adjustments. This may require additional planning and involve others depending on the nature of the tasks (personal vs work).
Though procrastination is generally frowned upon, it can be beneficial if you use that time as an opportunity to think through a plan to get things done. While you may not be able to make changes straight away, you can brainstorm ways to curb the tendency to put things off until the last minute.
You see, I believe that should is one of the most damaging words in our language. Every time we use should, we are, in effect, saying “wrong.” Either we are wrong or we were wrong or we are going to be wrong. I don’t think we need more wrong in our life. — Louise Hay, quoted by Jim Hughes
When we go to make organizing decisions, we often know, deep down, what’s right for us. But then sometimes we listen to the “shoulds” — from other people or from ourselves — and veer away from those right-for-us decisions.
I need to keep these books because I should read them
Unless you’re in school, you can probably let go of this “should.” If you have absolutely no interest in reading some of the classics, you can give the books away; you really don’t have to read them. You only have so much reading time available in your life, so why not use that time to read the things you truly want to read?
I should convert from my paper planner, address book, or to-do list to a digital system
Digital tools certainly have their advantages — but if paper works for you, there’s really no need to change. You may want to look at how you could back up these physical copies just in case they get lost or damaged, but there’s no reason you need to switch from what’s working well.
I should keep this sentimental thing
Well, perhaps you should keep it. Is it actually sentimental to you or is it the kind of thing most people find sentimental? I got rid of all but a few pages of my high school yearbook because I just didn’t care about it, even thought this act would horrify other people.
Alison Hodgson wrote about the collection of love letters from her husband that she held onto because, when she asked her siblings for their advice, two of the three said she should. Here’s what came next:
I tucked the letters back into their box, and there they remained, untouched, until the day they burned in a house fire. And I have never given them a second thought.
Looking back I can see I really wanted to get rid of them but didn’t think I ought to — that was the tension. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what I wanted to do, it was that what I wished to do conflicted with what I thought I should.
I should never check email in the morning; that’s what Julie Morgenstern says
That’s advice that works for many people, but not for everyone. If you give it a try and it’s interfering with your workflow or just doesn’t suit your personality, it’s fine to ignore this suggestion. The same goes for the advice from any organizing expert. What is most important is finding the productivity system that works best for you.
So take a minute to ponder: Are you holding onto something or making any other organizing decision just because it’s what you think you should do? If so, maybe it’s time to reconsider.
Recently, I found out that someone I know lost his job. He described being shocked when he learned he was being let go, and that he had to accept that he needed to shift gears and move into job-search mode. He also said something else I found very interesting:
I found that I have so much that I should and want to do, that it has proved to be almost more difficult to accomplish things than when I was spending eight-plus hours in the office every day. Each day so far, without a schedule as tight as I had been maintaining while employed, seems to be flying by! More time is actually less time.
It’s the paradox of that last statement that gave me pause. Theoretically, it would seem that not having to commute and spend several hours at an office would equate to having more time to work on anything you want — in his case, job search activities. I think a couple of things are happening here. First, he’s dealing with a change — and not just any change, a major one that came as somewhat of a surprise. Second, his routine is not his routine anymore. Even though he has systems that work for him, they may not necessarily fit his current situation. And, now that he has less structure built in to his day, it can be easy for time to just slip away and for him to become frustrated.
People think of change as something dangerous. But it helps to remember all the ways your life has been altered in the past and realize that not only did you not keel over and die, things often turned out for the better.
When a significant change occurs in your life, you might find yourself consumed by stress or even fear, but there are several things you can to do to stay positive and keep moving forward:
- Take a look at what has worked in the past. If you find that you’re feeling frustrated about your new circumstances, you can take hold of your emotions by thinking about the strategies that have previously been successful. Can those techniques be incorporated in your new routine? What adjustments would you have to make?
- Consider new strategies. While you can rely on tried and true action steps, this might be a good time to explore other options that might help you more easily manage your current circumstances. You can talk with friends and family members to find out what strategies worked for them to help you decide the ones you’ll try. Be sure not to get stuck at this stage as it can delay how quickly you can focus on your next steps.
- Create a new plan. Once you’ve reviewed all your options, you’ll need to craft a plan. Select specific tactics you’ll employ consistently so you can successfully transition to your new routine.
- Put your new plan to the test. Of course, there’s no point in having a plan if you don’t implement it. Keep in mind not every day will go as you intend and you may need to make some adjustments. If you encounter hiccups along the way, you can again talk with someone you trust (perhaps a long-time advisor or mentor) to give you objective opinions or make necessary changes.
Whether it’s changing jobs or doing a whole house uncluttering project, being organized with your process is a great way to stay on track and move forward when undergoing a significant life change.
I’m more selective about the information I put in my body than what food I consume. — Robert Reid
If you have wide-ranging interests or just a huge sense of curiosity, you may be like me — someone who could happily spend days just reading things online or in newspapers or magazines.
But, of course, we also want to do other things with our lives: earn a living, get exercise, see friends, pursue our hobbies, etc. So how do we cope with the never-ending flow of interesting information?
When I’m making my decisions about what to read, I focus on four questions.
Why do I want to know about this subject or read this article?
If it’s information related to my profession, it might change how I do my work. Since I do editing work, updates from Associated Press about changes to the AP Stylebook matter to me. As an organizer, sometimes there is a new product or an explanation of a specific technique or even just a cool way of wording a familiar concept that might really help a client.
News about what’s going on in the lives of family members and close friends matters to me, because I care about these people. So yes — I do use Facebook to follow the lives of the relatives and close friends who use Facebook for that kind of sharing.
Sometimes there’s information I need in order to take action. For example, if there’s an election coming up, I need to get informed about the candidates and the ballot issues. And I may want to learn more about a specific cause to decide if I want to get involved.
Irrespective of the reason, it is a good idea to be aware of why you want to know about a topic before you take to reading about it (even if it’s a simple reason like I want to smile at cute kitten photographs to lighten my mood).
How much do I need to know?
Do I need an in-depth knowledge of a topic? Often, I don’t. Sometimes just a headline is enough. Sometimes one thoughtful article by a trusted source is enough; I can read one article instead of 20.
Is this a source of information I want to pursue?
Many people write about the topics I care about. Over time, I’ve found which ones tend to provide the most useful information, so I can ignore the rest. I’ve also found which people tend to refer me to articles I want to read; if they share something, I know it’s likely to be worth my time.
Do I need to know now?
If the article relates to something I may do in the future — travel to a place, buying a product — I can just file the information away, often in the form of a bookmark to the article or others might save the link to Evernote. All I need is a very quick skim to determine if it’s likely to be useful; I’ll read it more carefully when the time comes (such as when I’m waiting for an appointment or relaxing on a Saturday afternoon).
Asking myself these questions allows me to skim through a huge amount of possible information and pick the few things I really want to read. It’s still a challenge — I’m an information junkie at heart — but these questions at least set me going along a path away from information overload.
There’s not a single right way to set up a filing system; the right system is one that works for you, where the time you spend filing pays off in ease of finding your documents when you need them.
Let’s assume you’ve already decided which papers you need to keep. The following are additional questions to consider:
- Does someone else need to share your files? If so, be sure to answer these questions with whomever else will be filing things away or retrieving things from your filing system.
- How much do you want to scan? If you’re comfortable with digital files, you may want to scan many of your papers and then discard or shred the originals (the ones that are legal to shred). Sometimes, you may want both a scanned copy (for backup and easy access) and a paper one.
- For papers you’re keeping, do you prefer binders or file folders — or some combination thereof?
- For action papers, are you comfortable using a tickler file? Action papers are those that need attention versus reference papers (such as your insurance papers) and archives/historic papers (such as your tax returns from 3 years ago). A tickler file creates a space for papers associated with actions, based on when you’re planning to take that action. There’s a section for each day of the current month and a section for each of the next 12 months. If you don’t want to use a tickler file, you could create files labeled by type of action needed (pay, call, enter into address book, etc.), or by urgency.
- How many files do you really need? Don’t be afraid to create a file for a single piece of paper, if it really doesn’t fit with anything else. But don’t go overboard with subdivision either, if it doesn’t help with retrieving your papers.
- Do you really hate to file? Could you get by with the “one box” approach from the Simple Productivity Blog? Here’s how that works: “Grab a small, empty box. … Throughout the year, toss in the things you need to hang on to for financial and tax reasons: paid bills, tax documents, bills. At the end of the year, go through it and shred what you can. Then stick it on a shelf with an appropriate label and start a new one.”
- Are you more of a “piler” than a “filer”? If so, you can still organize your piles to make things easier to find, for you and others; consider the Pendaflex PileSmart products. You could also use a series of baskets or bins on a shelf to hold your various piles.
- Where do you want to keep your files? Action files need to be close at hand to where you work. Many people prefer to keep them in some sort of step file, desktop file box or wall-mounted file — but some people prefer to keep them in a file drawer. Reference files need to be convenient to get to, but not as close by as action files. And historic files can go anywhere you have secure storage space; you don’t need easy access to them on a regular basis.
- Do none of those filing options sound quite right? Get creative. Keep important papers on a wall, using a series of clipboards. Use a collection of transparent bags hanging on racks. Go wild!
If you decide to use file folders:
- Are you OK with basic manila file folders and green hanging folders? Or, do you want something snazzier? You’ve got lots of choices, from a rainbow of solid colors to a huge range of patterns.
- Do you want file folders inside of hanging folders or just hanging folders, or just file folders? If you’re going with file folders inside hanging folders, you may want what’s called “interior folders,” which won’t obscure the labels on the hanging folders. You may also want box bottom hanging folders to hold a large number of file folders.
- Do you want folders made from recycled materials? If this matters to you, look for folders with a high percentage of recycled and post-consumer material content.
- Is color-coding useful to you, or just one more thing to worry about?
You can always use colored folders just because you like them, without assigning any specific meaning to a color.
- Do you want folders with the normal 1/3 cut tab (left, center, right) or with straight-cut tabs? Straight-cut tabs, which go the whole length of the file folder, give you room for longer labels. In either case, if your file folders will get a lot of use, look for ones with reinforced tabs.
- Do you want to use a label maker, or just hand-write your labels? Labels made with a label maker are very easy to read — especially helpful for those of us with older eyes — and have a nice polished look. But plenty of people are happy with hand-written labels, too. In either case, I suggest avoiding dark-colored plastic tabs on hanging files, because these make the labels hard to read.
- Do you want to use straight-line filing, or staggered? For my own files, I use straight-line filing with all the tabs in a single position; I like not worrying about messing up my staggered tabs (left, center, right) when I add a new file. (I use a new tab position to indicate a new grouping of files.) But others find staggered files easier to use.
- Do you want to group related files, and, if so, how? Some prefer a simple A-Z filing system, while others prefer to have groupings: financial papers, family member papers, etc. Do you want to put all your insurance papers together? Do you want to put all your car-related papers together? Where does the auto insurance go?
Got your answers? Now you’re ready to create your filing system. As you work with your files, you may change your answers to some questions; that’s normal. Keep adjusting your system, so it keeps working for you.
Many people are often in search of a strategy, tool, or productivity system that will help them to get more done. This is a good goal to have — afterall, who doesn’t want a set of habits that will help them cross stuff off their to-do list? In addition to actually accomplishing what you set out or agree to do, there’s a strong feeling of satisfaction you get when you actually pull it off on a regular basis.
On the other hand, it is possible this exuberant feeling you get from being productive can be taken to the extreme. You might crave that feeling so much that in your attempt to consistently recreate it, you end up working all the time. One could speculate that the need to work all the time is really about wanting to be in control. Others may characterize this as an addiction to working, even if the task you’re engrossed in is a worthwhile endeavor. Perhaps, work feels like a comfortable place to retreat to, a way to escape other parts of your life. No matter what the underlying reasons are, if you find yourself focusing on work tasks all the time, you are likely to be considered a workaholic.
On the surface, there may not seem to be a downside to spending a few extra hours at work each day, especially when you’re achieving the goals you set for yourself. But, keep in mind that you may be confusing working too much with having a strong work ethic. While both may require diligent effort and a reliance on core values, overworking likely includes a lack of discipline or the inability to stop working and recognize when it’s time to take a break. Here on Unclutterer, we’ve often extolled the benefits of taking mini-breaks throughout the work day as well as the positive effect exercise and sleep has on productivity. Certainly, if one is always working, there would be little or no time for either of those activities or any outside interests. Ultimately, this would lead to burnout.
In addition, an overly zealous worker is not beneficial to employers. Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D., author of Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them, explained:
A workaholic might seem to be every CEO’s dream: an employee who comes in early, stays late, doesn’t take vacations, and takes on mountains of work. But those very qualities may make the workaholic a poor candidate for employee of the month because they often have more work than they can handle effectively, don’t delegate, aren’t team players, and are often more disorganized …
If you’re taking on too much, it is possible that you may not realize it (take Dr. Robinson’s quiz). As I mentioned before, you may think you’re simply a hard worker. Of course, there may be times when you need to work extra hours. Business owners everywhere (myself included) understand this all too well. However, it is important to prioritize specific tasks and to recognize when it’s time to ask for help. The latter will not only allow you to streamline your focus, but also help you to be more productive.
Depending on your buying habits and your drinking habits, you may never need worry about whether or not to keep a bottle of booze. But sometimes people do wind up with alcohol that may not be worth keeping: because they got something as a gift and never drank it, because their own drinking habits changed, because they inherited some bottles, etc.
At Unclutterer, we’ve touched on this subject before, but I’d like to provide more detailed guidance.
Two things can go wrong with beer.
Beer can get skunky — so it smells pretty awful, almost exactly like a skunk — if it’s exposed to light. Beer in brown bottles or in cans has good protection from skunking. And as the Beeriety blog explains, some beers that come in clear or green bottles use a hop substitute rather than actual hops, which means they won’t get skunky.
Beer also goes stale over time — more quickly if it’s not refrigerated. It won’t harm you, but it won’t taste all that good. How long does that take? As Chantal Martineau explains on Food Republic, one expert says three to six months for many beers; those with high alcohol content last longer. You can check for sell-by dates on the bottles, although they’re sometimes hard to see, and may use codes rather than actual dates, making things more complicated.
“Distilled spirits don’t go bad; they fade,” says Glenn Jeffers, writing in the Chicago Tribune. Unopened bottles of hard liquor like whiskey will last indefinitely, unless you store it horribly — like in a cedar chest, close to mothballs, or near a direct heat source.
What about an opened bottle? Ethan Kelley, an expert quoted by The Kitchn explains, “From a spirit geek standpoint, it’s good for 6-8 months — that’s the industry standard. For the average layperson, 8 months to maybe a year.”
But those old, opened bottles aren’t unsafe to drink from — although you may not want to. As Phil Vettel writes, also in the Chicago Tribune, “Barring contamination, liquor doesn`t go bad in the sense that meat or fish go bad. Liquor instead experiences a gradual decrease in quality; for example, an ages-old bottle of whiskey might develop, over time, a taste so unpleasant that you can`t drink it.”
Bottles with very little left in them deteriorate more quickly; these are the ones you’re most likely to want to pour down the drain.
These liqueurs will indeed go bad; some will note an expiration date on the bottle, so look for that. You can also check the guidance of the individual brands.
Baileys says of its cream liqueur, “Baileys … guarantees its taste for 2 years from the day it was made, opened or unopened, stored in the fridge or not when stored away from direct sunlight at a temperature range of 0-25 degrees centigrade. … Under normal conditions of storage Baileys has a shelf-life of 30 months.”
And Carolans says, “An unopened bottle of Carolans will last about 2 years on average, but this can vary depending on storage conditions — exposure to excessively hot storage conditions can adversely affect the shelf life. … All cream liqueurs are best drunk ‘young’ and should be consumed within 6 months of opening the bottle; refrigerate after opening.”
“What’s the worst that can happen?,” asks Michael Dietsch at Serious Eats. The answer? “Maggie Hoffman reports that the Baileys in her father’s liquor cabinet actually became solid after a decade or so.”
Consider taking a moment to assess your own liquor collection, before you ever get to a situation as sad as solid cream liqueurs.
Many people new to uncluttering will begin the process with a simple technique called “a thing a day.” (I learned about the method a few years ago in the Unclutterer Forum.) There are a couple of positive aspects to using this simple method in an effort to clear clutter. First, it’s not overwhelming. If you choose to focus on one thing, it’s likely to be a lot easier and quicker to complete every day. Second, it’s also a momentum builder. By doing one uncluttering activity each day, you get an opportunity to practice creating order, so that it feels like a typical part of your life, rather than a chore that you dread doing. And, as your space becomes free of unwanted items, you’ll be able to create a plan to keep it organized.
Another benefit of using ATAD is you can begin the process wherever you’d like. Your one daily thing can be retrieved from any room of your home. As this becomes a regular part of your routine, you might look for one thing in several or all rooms, though based on a recent study done by IKEA, you may want to start with your clothes closet. The results showed that despite the fact that the average person owns 88 pieces of clothing, only 25 percent of them are actually worn. This may be because most people are reaching for their favorite (or most comfortable) items frequently and leaving other pieces for another time.
If you find yourself in this situation, you can likely free up a bit of space by selecting specific articles of clothing that you hardly reach for as your first items in your ATAD journey. Sure, you’ll have some things that you may only wear on special (infrequent) occasions, but you may want to take a look in your closet for specific items that you haven’t worn in two seasons or more. You might want to focus on removing one thing every day over the course of several weeks so that you can systematically go through each piece of clothing.
Would you be surprised to learn that the same study also found that a large number of Americans say that having a laundry room is high on their wish list? As it turns out, that’s not the only room that they covet — just about any room with added storage capacity seems to be highly desired.
When looking for new homes, a whopping 93% of Americans want a laundry room, 90% want linen closets in their bathrooms, and 85% want a walk-in pantry.
That’s probably no surprise as many people often feel that a lack of storage is the root cause of overstuffed and cluttered spaces.
While changing the size of your closet (or adding more storage) can be a huge undertaking, selecting one thing that you can part with will be much less daunting. As you start thinking about how you might include ATAD in your day-to-day life, have a look at the rest of the IKEA findings.
Image credit: IKEA
Reader Theo submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
My daughter is in fifth grade with long hair and every *&*^%#! hair accessory you can possibly imagine. Our house is overrun with ponytail holders and barrettes. I threaten to cut her hair off in the middle of the night if she can’t find a way to keep all of these things on her head or in her room or bathroom. Her mother has short hair and is oblivious to my frustration. Help please. — Theo, who is tired of cutting ponytail holders out of the vacuum belt
Theo, are you actually a time-traveling version of my dad writing from the early 1980s? Your email hints of so many fights he and I had when I was a kid — except replace “ponytail holders” with “ribbon braided and beaded barrettes.” It gave me a shiver, actually, when I first read it.
Your email reminiscent of my father spurred me into taking a look at my current hair accessories (yes, adults have them, too) and admitting to myself I haven’t been doing a great job organizing them, either. Everything was crammed haphazardly into a basket in my linen closet and dozens of ponytail holders were on door knobs and drawer knob pulls throughout the house (out of reach of the vacuum, but still not in their proper place).
I decided to spend about an hour this past weekend getting these items under control and what I did might work for your daughter.
The first thing I did was round up all my hair doodads — I searched the house and also grabbed my disorderly basket out of the linen closet and poured it all on my bed. Next, I sorted by type. All ponytail holders were put into one pile, all hard headbands made another pile, all soft headbands made another one, then barrettes, bobby pins, hair clips, bun holders, etc.
After sorting, I threw out all items that were ready for the trash from each of the piles — broken or over-stretched ponytail holders, bent bobby pins, barrettes missing their back clips, etc. Then, I went through the piles again and pulled out any accessories that aren’t my style any longer and put those in a large envelope to send to my toddler niece who loves dressing up and doesn’t care much about current fashion trends at this point. What remained after these two purging cycles was manageable and so I didn’t need to do a third round, but your daughter might want to (these items she could give to friends if they’re in good condition and her friends are amenable).
I decided to recycle some items in my home for storage solutions for the accessories that remained. Since developing a gluten intolerance, I no longer have a need for a wheat flour storage canister. So, I washed mine out and repurposed it for my hard and soft headbands:
If you don’t have a container like this, I recommend heading to your pantry or local grocery store with one of your daughter’s headbands. Try them out on different food canisters — they usually fit well around oatmeal canisters. She can wrap the container in her favorite wrapping paper or contact paper to spruce things up a bit.
For ponytail holders, I repurposed an old pill travel organizer:
Again, if you don’t have one of these, a lot of different materials could work, even toilet paper rolls but you need to stuff them with something sturdy so they don’t collapse (wrap this one in contact paper — I don’t recommend wrapping paper for this project as it gets ripped pretty easily, but contact paper is much more sturdy).
I put bobby pins in an old box I inherited from my grandmother. Barrettes and clips went into zip-top bags until I find something else to store them in over the longterm:
My point in repurposing these items was to show that you don’t have to go out and buy something just for organizing her accessories. You probably have things already in your home you can use. If you want to spend some money, there are manufactured options available.
Thank you, Theo, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I’m also thankful for the motivation you gave to me to get my hair accessories in order. Be sure to check out the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.
Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.
Once the uncluttering is done and you’re deciding how to store the keepers, you may find you need some products to help you create an organized space. You might need bookshelves, file folders, a scanner, an inbox, some good hangers for the closet — any number of things.
How do you select your products? Most importantly, you want something functional, something that really meets your needs. Price is obviously a consideration, too. But what criteria do you use beyond that? The following are five recommendations for how to acquire the right organizing products for your needs:
Use something you already own
This saves money and it’s a green way to go. It can also result in some very personalized storage solutions. Many people have excess coffee mugs that could be used as pencil cups. I’ve taken a cat bed that my cats disdained and turned it into an inbox in my office. The pretty box pictured below? A friend used it to package a gift for me and now I use it to store my flossers.
Get something second-hand
Buy something at a thrift store or join your local freecycle community or other similar groups and get something there. Garage sales can be sources of incoming clutter, but, if you’re a wise shopper, they can also be sources of organizing product treasures.
I recently freecycled these drawers. I’ve also given away wooden hangers and lots of filing supplies. People in your local group may also be giving away organizing products.
Buy from stores that easily accept returns and exchanges
Even if you check the dimensions of your space, you may still find the item you’ve purchased doesn’t quite work for you. If you’re concerned this may happen, you’ll want to buy from a store where returns and exchanges aren’t a hassle.
Honor your personal values
Based on your ideologies, this may mean you buy from local stores or independent stores or individual artists. It may mean you buy from stores that are known for treating their employees well. Maybe you look for products manufactured in your own country, rather than abroad. Or maybe you look for products that aren’t over-packaged and are made from sustainable materials. Depending on how you feel about the research on plastic food storage containers, you may want to avoid plastics for anything going into the microwave.
Or maybe none of these things matter to you, and that’s fine, too.
Acquire things that delight you
Sometimes all you need is a basic plastic bin, but other times you may want something with more flair. In those situations, look for products that delight you with their design, their color, their silliness, etc.
Most of my bookends are just simple and sturdy, but I do love this rhino, and it helps me to get books back on the shelf after I reference them because I like looking at it.
This oversized mug is what I use to store my kitchen utensils. I bought it at a local craft fair about 20 years ago. It still makes me smile every time I look at it.
You’ve done it! Your home is uncluttered, with everything in its place.
But then, a few months later, things aren’t quite the same.
How do you maintain that organized space you so enjoyed? The following seven ideas will give you an edge and don’t rely on a magic wand.
Make it super easy to put things away.
Well, OK — it’s fine if your holiday decorations are stored in a place that’s a bit hard to get to. But, with things you use frequently, you’ll want to make it as easy as possible to put them back in their places.
Make sure the containers you use aren’t too full; strive to keep them at least 20 percent empty. Think about how hard it is to file things in an over-stuffed file cabinet. Other overly full containers are also hard to work with.
Consider containers without lids; consider hooks instead of hangers. If you have high shelves you need to access fairly often, have a step stool close at hand.
And, as much as possible, accommodate the way paper and objects naturally tend to flow through your home. If incoming mail gets dropped on the coffee table, put an inbox there. If coats wind up in a pile right by the front door, consider putting hooks or a coat tree in that area.
Make sure everything has a home.
Also, make sure that all family members who share putting-things-away responsibility know where those homes are. You can’t put something in its proper home if it doesn’t have one. Buying something new? Make sure you decide where it’s going to live in your home before you pay for it.
Share a file cabinet with another family member? Make sure you both agree on how things will be filed. I met a woman who filed the house insurance under the name of the insurance agent; her husband had no idea where to find it.
Don’t forget to label your storage containers, especially when it’s not immediately obvious what goes where. You can use pictures to label toy bins and such for young children, so they can help put things away, too.
Use good tools.
I spent way too much time pulling jammed paper out of my shredder before I invested in a new one. Now I’ve got one that works, and life is so much easier.
Look for file cabinets with full-extension drawers — where the drawers pull out far enough that you can easily get to the files at the back.
Develop a routine.
Maybe you and your child take 10 minutes to put toys away each evening. Maybe you sort out junk mail daily, and do your filing weekly. Figure out what routines work for you and your family and stick to them.
If finances allow it, consider hiring help.
Hiring a gardener or a housecleaner to take care of some routine tasks can free up your time for the things that only you can handle. If you have a small home-based business and hate doing the bookkeeping, consider hiring someone for this task, so you don’t get behind.
Or, maybe you have some projects sitting around that are creating clutter because they aren’t getting done — those shelves aren’t getting installed on their own and that thing you were going to repair isn’t getting repaired. It might be worth paying someone else to do those types of projects for you.
You could also consider doing a task swap with a friend. You despise doing Task A, but don’t mind doing Task B? Your friend is fine with doing Task A, but always puts off doing Task B? Maybe you can help each other.
Do a periodic uncluttering.
Tastes changes. Needs change. The lids to food storage containers get lost. Children outgrow things. Schedule some time, every once in a while, to make sure all the things you own are still things you want.
Set an appropriate standard.
Unless your home is on the market with potential buyers coming by any time or unless your home is being used for a photo shoot, immaculate is probably an unnecessarily high standard for daily living in your home. Keep your home safe, functional, and generally uncluttered — but don’t fret that it isn’t perfect. Perfect is an impossible continuous standard.
You know the annoying feeling of sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, for minutes on end, doing nothing while the doctor is running late? It can be aggravating. Oncologist Dr. James Salwitz recently published an article expressing a doctor’s perspective on this trial on our patience. He wrote about a normal busy day at his office — or what was a normal day, until this happened:
The 1:30, 1:45, 2:00 patients all arrived at 2:15 and suddenly I was looking at an afternoon that would run deeply into eve. I really hate it when patients are late. …
As an oncologist, I detest running late, because it means leaving people with cancer on their minds, stewing in my waiting room. Personally, I worry when I am waiting at the dentist for a cleaning. What goes on in the mind of someone waiting to see me?
This got me thinking about how much grief we can cause for ourselves and others when we find ourselves running late. Usually we just inconvenience people, but sometimes the implications are more serious. Laurie Perry shares a story about the woman who hit her Jeep:
After the crash she sat in her car, writing out her phone number for me, saying, “I was late for work.” I remember looking at her with absolute disbelief, thinking You almost killed me because you were late for work?
That line keeps coming back to me at the oddest times. I’ll see someone blow through a red light and hear that lady saying, I was late for work. And then I think, I hope they don’t kill someone just because they couldn’t bother to leave on time for work today.
What causes us to run late? Some people fall prey to underestimating the time it will take to get somewhere. That’s not my personal weakness. I’m what Penelope Trunk calls a “time pessimist”; I assume things are going to take longer than my first estimate. I’ve learned that Google Maps gives me an optimistic driving time. And I live in an area with minimal public transit and winding two-lane roads, where any traffic snarls lead to major delays — so I’ve learned to pad many minutes into my driving times.
Some people are hooked on the adrenaline rush of cutting things close. In her book It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys, Marilyn Paul notes that “there is a thrill in running late, postponing something to the last minute, or meeting a deadline by minutes. If you’re in your car, rushing to an appointment, you experience the exhilaration of trying to get through each traffic light.” She goes on to explain that there are better ways to get your adrenaline rush. But I don’t get a thrill from cutting things close — quite the opposite. I’m one of those people who is nervous enough about missing a plane that I arrive at airports ridiculously early.
I’m also not someone who tends to get held up because I’ve misplaced something. My house keys go on a hook by the front door. My Prius car keys and my wallet stay in my purse. I’ve got a tote bag that has everything I need for a certain weekly meeting. Sure, I will sometimes misplace something and have to scramble, but it’s a rare event.
Rather, when I’ve found myself leaving home later than I intended, it’s usually due to what Kathleen Nadeau calls one-more-thing-itis. I send one more email. I do one more seemingly tiny task. Then I hope there’s no traffic jam, because I’ve eaten up all my carefully planned buffer time. And I promise myself I’m never doing this to myself again.
But for many people, it’s difficult to develop the habits needed to arrive on time. For anyone who is chronically late and concerned about that, but is finding it hard to change, I’d recommend Never Be Late Again, by Diana DeLonzer, which presents “seven cures for the punctually challenged.” It’s a book filled with both humor and wisdom, from an author who has overcome this challenge herself.
Additional help: Hang something as simple as a removable utility hook near your front door or inside your coat closet to hold your keys every time you come into your home. Set alarms on your smart phone, watch, or Time Timer to remind you to get out the door when you need to. Time yourself doing regular morning activities (brushing your teeth, taking a shower, walking your dog around the neighborhood, getting dressed, eating breakfast, etc.) to see how long it really takes you to do these activities. As humans, we often underestimate how long things take us to do, and having a real sense of the time it takes you to get ready can help you plan your day better so you can get places on time.
You’ve uncluttered your home, and now you’re making sure everything you’re saving has its defined storage place. You’ll usually want to store the things you use most often in easy-to-reach places — but please make sure you’re also storing things safely. Here are some of the issues you’ll want to consider.
A recent study by Safe Kids found that parents know the importance of storing medications up and away from children — but emergency department visits for accidental poisonings are still increasing. What’s going on? Children are ingesting medicines found on the floor, in purses, in pillboxes, etc. They get into these medicines not just at their own homes, but also at the homes of grandparents or other relatives.
So when you’re looking at storage requirements, be sure to think about those pillboxes and purses. And, remember that pets can also get into medications.
For more information, check out the Up and Away website, which reminds us to put every medicine and vitamin container away every time you use it — even if you’re going to use it again in just a few hours.
Most everyone knows to keep things like pesticides and antifreeze in places where children and pets can’t get to them. But other hazardous products might escape attention.
For example, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a safety alert warning about the dangers of single-load liquid laundry packets. These colorful packets look like toys to children, but they often contain chemicals that are dangerous if ingested — so they need to be kept safely away from kids.
If you have pets, please be aware of the materials that may be toxic to them, and store those items appropriately. The Pet Poison Hotline has a detailed list of pet toxins for cats and dogs, including items like chocolate, matches, nicotine, and mothballs. Since so many foods can be poisonous to pets, you’ll want to be sure you have a pet-proof garbage can, one that’s tucked away where pets can’t get into it, or pets that are trained to never raid the garbage can.
Furniture, televisions and other heavy items
Living in earthquake territory, I’ve learned about the perils of toppling bookcases and other heavy items. The Dare to Prepare website reminds readers to tightly secure everything that could injure someone if it falls — as well as any fragile items you would hate to see damaged. The site provides information on how to properly secure bookcases, filing cabinets, etc.
But, until recently, I hadn’t thought about how easily children can get crushed if a television or a piece of heavy furniture were to fall on them — which can happen when a child reaches for something like a remote or climbs onto the furniture to get to an attractive item. The Georgia Department of Public Health has written about these issues, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission has a Tip-Over Information Center. Safe Kids has a report providing extensive information about the TV tip-over problem and how to avoid it.
Where do you store plastic bags? Do you dispose of dry cleaning bags immediately, in places where young children and pets can’t get hold of them? These bags can present a suffocation risk, so please handle them appropriately. The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends that you “tie plastic bags in a knot before storing them out of reach and out of sight” if you have children ages 6-12 months.
Being well organized also gives you the opportunity to be more safe in your home. Storing items securely and safely can help to prevent accidents.
“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.” — Francis Bacon, Sr.
It’s no secret that writing things down is beneficial in several ways. A mind that’s not trying to remember tasks is better prepared for problem solving and focusing on the present. Good ideas are fleeting and need to be captured, irrespective of when they happen. It’s important to have written goals and lists that can remind you of what you need to do. There’s more, of course, but I’m going to address that last point.
I’ve been keeping a to-do list in my pocket for years. For most of that time, it was a simple list of things I needed to do. That’s great, but I found problems. Notably, I’d feel guilty about tasks I couldn’t complete because of my circumstance.
For example, I can’t make progress on “get pants hemmed at the tailor” while I’m stuck at my desk. I can’t pay the registration fee for the kids for soccer while I’m standing in line at the DMV. Likewise, I often don’t have the energy or time available for more demanding tasks when I’m reviewing my list at the end of the day.
Looking at items I couldn’t take acton on was stressful. It was time to re-think the simple to-do list. The following are several ways to sort, organize and prioritize the items on your to-do list for easy reference and guilt-free productivity on the go:
Sorting by context
Step one was to sort by context. I know a lot of people dislike this idea, but hear me out on this. At the top of my to-do list, I’ll put a heading like “@phone.” Beneath it I list tasks that require a phone call. Next, I’ll put “@errands” and “@computer”. Appropriate tasks are listed under each one. That way, when I’m at my desk with some free time, I can look at “@phone” or “@computer” and hammer out those tasks. I don’t even see items listed under “@errands”, so I don’t feel guilty about not making progress on them. (David Allen refers to these location-based lists often in his writing.)
Time and Energy Available
Of course, context isn’t the only way to decide what you can work on at any give time. It’s smart to also consider your time available and energy available. When your fresh first thing in the morning, tackle those jobs that require much physical and/or mental energy. Reserve something less taxing, like filing receipts, for the end of the day or after lunch when you might have a dip in focus. Likewise, I don’t always have the time to lay out the new flower bed. But a free Saturday afternoon lets me do just that.
A few weeks ago, I came across Word Notebooks. My notebook addiction is legendary, so I could not resist buying a pair. They’re similar in size and shape to the Field Notes brand notebooks that I love so much, but offer something different.
Each paperback notebook has a “use guide” that’s printed on the inside cover and in the margin of every page. You’ll find a small circle around an even smaller circle. The idea is to highlight the importance and completion state of each item with these circles. Here’s how it works.
- Color in the inner circle to identify an item as a bullet point
- Highlight the outer circle to identify something as important
- Put a single line trough both circles for items that are in progress
- Draw an “X” over items that are complete
It’s tidy and offers an at-a-glance overview of the status of your to-do list. Unlike the context system that I use or the energy-available strategy, the Word notebooks visually arrange action items by priority and state of completion. Pretty nice! Of course, you don’t have to buy a special notebook with pre-printed circles. You could roll your own solution.
The Dash/Plus System
My Internet buddy, author and all-around nice guy Patrick Rhone described a system that he devised for keeping careful track of the items on his to-do list. His system uses plusses, arrows, and geometric shapes to denote the status of an action item. It’s clear, simple, and doesn’t require a special notebook.
Now I’ll turn it over to you. Do you keep a plain list or have you adopted a system like these? Let me know in the comments.
As an independent worker, I’m learning to be the manager, technician, and boss of “Dave, Inc.” I’m also a devotee of productivity tools (read: junkie) and I’ve tried most of the major systems, techniques, and software. By far, the most effective strategy I’ve adopted is also the simplest, and possibly the oldest: write things down. Not only does it reduce the stress of possibly forgetting something important, it also helps answer the question, “What should I work on now?”
I write things down all day, from capturing ideas to outlining articles and ideas. However, the most important list is the one I make right before bed.
Every night, I review what I’ve accomplished and what’s outstanding. Next, I write down the three most important tasks that I must complete the next day. This practice has two main benefits. First, it shuts off my brain. Tell me if this sounds familiar: your body is ready to go to sleep but your brain decides it’s party time! So it starts to review everything that needs to be done. Good times! When I’ve got those things out of my brain and committed to a list that I’ll see in the morning, the plug gets pulled on that party.
Second, it lets me avoid the overwhelming feeling of not knowing where to begin. Many of us have 10, 20, or more outstanding projects. It can be hard to know where to start when you have so many. Deciding before I sit down helps alleviate that feeling and provide direction.
Conversely, approaching the workday without a list of observable, clearly-defined actions creates one of two scenarios. Either you’ll attend to every distraction that pops into your mind and make insignificant progress on many projects, or you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time on a project that’s less critical than others.
Every night between 9:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., I review my project lists and pick the three mission-critical tasks that MUST be completed the following day. Then, I gather 5–6 other tasks that can wait a day but would be the icing on the cake if completed within the next 24 hours.
I then take a pen and a notebook and write them down. This simple practice reduces my anxiety tremendously, lets me sleep, and gives me direction in the morning. When it’s noon and I’ve completed all three critical tasks, I feel fantastic.
There are a huge number of tools available for creating such a list of actions. I use David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner. It lets me create a list, track how much time I actually spend on each (instead of my estimate), and gather incoming “stuff” as it shows up. It’s super useful.
Of course, most computers come with a quick note-type app. If you’re happy with just a bullet list, give it a try.
I’ve also started exploring these other programs:
The Pomodoro Technique. I use a modified implementation of this method. At its heart, it’s a way to alternate timed work sessions with break sessions. I work for 25 minutes straight and then take a 5-minute break. When the break’s over, I start again with another 25-minute work session. After three rotations, the break extends to 15 minutes, the I go back to 25 on, 5 off.
Mac users who want to try it out will love BreakTime. This unobtrusive utility lives in my Menu Bar and times your work/break sessions all on its own. Others should consider Focus Booster, a free, browser-based timer that looks great and works well.
Boomerang for Gmail. I usually check email at 9:00 a.m., noon and then 2:00 p.m. I, like so many others, had become a slave to the inbox and I don’t want to do that anymore. I use Gmail for a lot of work-related email, and Boomerang lets me schedule when I interact with it. I can determine when messages will be sent, but even better, select when I want to see certain messages. During my morning sweep, I can use Boomerang to remind me of certain messages while I’m processing email again at noon.
Like many of you, I’m still struggling with the best way to manage all of this. These practices and apps have helped quite a bit. If you’re doing something similar (or completely different), let me know.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been completing my three mandatory tasks by 3:00. It feels great.